LIVING in this little corner of the world, there's an old saying that never fails to bring out a wry smile: If it rains before seven, it will clear before eleven.
Notice it doesn't mention how many days, or even weeks, that covers. So if it's raining before 7am on a Monday and clears three weeks later on a Friday before 11am, it's still accurate. I wouldn't bother trying to sue.
Anyway, it's that time of year when the hurricane season is in full swing across the Atlantic and we are regularly catching the tail end of the storms, the time of year when anyone looking for a guarantee of a moisture-free day will likely never leave the house.
Most of the time, I am able to pick and choose the drier interludes if I am walking solo. The exception is when others are involved, when dates are set in advance and there's no backing out. Then it's simply hit or miss. The events of two recent weekends in the hills illustrate the point perfectly. Both were long-standing commitments, both set in stone for time and place.
The first was a Corbetts completion party on Dun da Ghaoithe in Mull, the second a trip to the Lake District arranged by friends. Rain was a major factor in both outings, but in wildly different circumstances. When it comes to mountain walking, even the level of precipitation is inconsistent.
There was a mood of optimism as the ferry left Oban in calm and dry conditions despite the smothering blanket of grey over the water. The feeling was that it would soon dispel and Mull would be bathed in sunshine like the rest of the country.
Ilona was the first Australian to have completed the Munros and was now one peak away from doing similar with the Corbetts. She had timed the finish so her parents, who were holidaying in Scotland, could share the big moment. As we headed up higher into the gloom, the drizzle being driven across the hillside by a fierce wind, you could have forgiven her mum and dad for thinking they had been transported to another planet.
It wasn't surprising that not everyone made it to the top. The party that eventually formed the welcoming tunnel at the summit cairn was reduced in number, the skirl of the pipes even more haunting in the clag.
Ilona had dressed to reflect her heritage, wearing a dirndl and waving an Australian flag as she stood on top of the rocks. Her Scottish connection was aptly represented by the lack of visibility and incessant drizzle. The weather can never put a dampener on these occasions, and we had enjoyed a few rainbows amidst the gloom on the hill so we were a moist but happy party on the ferry back.
One week later, I was heading south of the border for a three-day expedition to lonely Black Sail Hostel. My friends were chasing Wainwrights but with a conveyor belt of storms on the horizon it was doubtful how much, if any, they would get done. I was along mainly for the chance to visit this iconic refuge in the heart of the mountains.
The heavy overnight rain had relented but on arrival at Buttermere it looked as though waterproofs would be needed for the climb over Scarth Gap Pass. But as we gained height conditions improved, a short window of calm and clarity that remained open all the way over to the hostel.
That night we lay listening to the rain on the roof and the winds whipping around the building, the grim forecast coming to fruition. Next day, with the cloud down and the streams running high, two of us set off in the wind and rain for the short ascent of Kirk Fell with the plan to re-assess progress when we gained some height.
About halfway up, the rain went off and we found protection from the wind for a time by scrambling up a gully, sometimes on all fours, our hands and knees turned orange from the slimy clay soil. It looked like we had been taking part in a Tarantino-esque pottery class.
We made it to the summit and sheltered in the big shelter cairn. And as we sat there, the wind relented and the curtains began to open. All around, we see could the mountain mass taking shape through the mist. We decided to carry on towards Great Gable.
We had gone through another window, and this one provided constantly improving conditions for the next four hours. We took full advantage of our good fortune, continuing round to tick off another five summits. As we came off the final top, we could see the blackness racing up the valley. This was the main event. In the short time it took to reach the safety of the hostel, we were drenched.
The storm raged all night, torrential rain and ferocious winds. The original hope for the final day had been to tackle Pillar but with winds forecast to hit 80mph any attempt to go high would be madness. As it was, we were battered from pillar to post in the short walk out over the pass.
When the weather is this wild, you just have to wrap and secure everything as best you can, get your head down and plod on. No food breaks, definitely no picture stops. I wore a light rain jacket over a heavier one for double protection and went with waterproof socks. In reality, though, nothing was going to stay dry.
As soon as we stepped out of the door, we were soaked. The paths had been turned into rivers, and every minor stream was now a torrent. Silver streaks sliced their way down the hillsides like opened veins.
The wind seemed to be coming from every direction, changing its mind every few seconds. I was knocked off my feet twice by surprise attacks. Even when we had dropped substantially down the other side, there was little relief. White horses were stampeding across the lake below, and at one point near the finish we were forced to brace and hold on to a fence as we were battered by bouncing tree branches.
But here's the strange thing. Despite being the heaviest rain I had walked in for many years, I didn't feel as wet as I had the previous week on Mull. I suspect that was simply down to preparation. There's a tendency to try and walk as long as possible without waterproofs if the rain is light and intermittent so by the time you do decide to put them on, the damage is already done. When the rain is torrential, there's no debate, it's full cover from the off.
That's probably the reason so many people swear that drizzle will leave them feeling wetter than being caught in a downpour.